SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Yielding to the governor’s office, California regulators on Wednesday agreed to postpone a restoration proposal that would reduce water for cities and farmers during droughts in hopes of spurring last-minute negotiations among the plan’s critics.
The State Water Resources Control Board spent more than three hours of discussion before agreeing to Gov. Jerry Brown and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “historic” request for an emergency 30-day bargaining period. The Democratic duo say the extension could allow the state, water districts, farmers and environmentalists to finally reach a new agreement on minimum flow standards for the San Joaquin River and its main tributaries after nearly a decade of debate.
Just minutes after being elected the next California governor, Newsom along with Brown sent the five-member board a letter urging postponement until December. They promised to bring all of the interested parties to the bargaining table.
“A short extension will allow these negotiations to progress and could result in a faster, less contentious and more durable outcome,” Brown and Newsom wrote. “Voluntary agreements are preferable to a lengthy administrative process and the inevitable ensuing lawsuits.”
While several of the board members were uncomfortable with the request – which came less than 24 hours before the planned board vote – they eventually indulged Brown and Newsom.
“I don’t make this decision lightly, I make it out of respect for both men and their offices,” said water board chair Felicia Marcus.
For nearly a decade the water board has been preparing the river flow amendments to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1995. It wants more water to remain in the San Joaquin River watershed during droughts in order to improve water quality in the state’s critical water-savings bank, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
To get more snowmelt water to wind down from the Sierra Nevada and into the delta, the plan calls for major cuts to San Francisco’s take of water from the Tuolumne River in Yosemite over 100 miles away, along with expected cutbacks for some Central Valley farmers. The goal is to boost water quality and improve long-dwindling salmon and fish populations.
According to state data, the number of adult fall-run Chinook salmon numbers has dropped by 85 percent since the 1980s, from 70,000 to just 10,000 in 2016-2017.
The plan would require an average of 40 percent of the tributaries’ natural or unimpaired flow to remain in the waterways in order to reach the delta during periods when salmon are returning from the Pacific Ocean. At times, over 90 percent of the tributaries’ natural flows are diverted to farms and cities.
The water board was supposed to act on the proposal Wednesday, until Brown and Newsom stepped in. Now it promises to reconvene and act on the plan Dec. 11 if the governor and governor-elect can’t finagle a compromise.
Fishing and environmental groups urged the water board to bypass the request and vote on the proposal as planned. They scoffed at the possibility of a miracle compromise within the next five weeks, as the various interest groups have been arguing over the issue for nearly a decade.
“Your delay today will throw the work of the last nine years out. It will undermine your staff, your science, and above all the integrity of the water board as a regulatory agency,” warned Chris Schutes of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
The Natural Resources Defense Council worried granting the delay would forgo public discussion and allow the deal to be made privately. It has refused to sign a confidentially agreement required to participate in the private negotiations.
“We believe that these kinds of negotiations need to be conducted in public and transparently,” said Doug Obegi, the group’s senior attorney.
Yet others like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, several Central Valley water districts and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Modesto, implored the water board to accept the delay. They hope to devise voluntary agreements over water flows and restoration projects and avoid an overarching water board mandate.
Gray said the letter was an “incredible development” and that the short delay would be an obvious benefit for all.
“Moving forward with the current plan puts everybody in the position to lose,” Gray argued.
Two members of Brown’s administration testified that the governor made the request in good faith and wouldn’t’ seek another delay. Brown held a press conference during the water board hearing and told reporters he believes a deal is possible within 30 days.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the water board that Newsom and Brown are ready to wade into and settle the water war.
“The governor and governor-elect are the right leaders at the right time, in the most amazing state in the United States of America,” Bonham said confidently. “They are bold, they know how to complete bold things.”